The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion: Comment 1

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The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins
The Root of All Evil: 2 TV programmes
The God Delusion SummaryComment 1Comment 2
The Virus of Faith SummaryHistoricism 1Historicism 2Contradictions

This is the first of three pages looking at Protestant atheism in Richard Dawkins's recent TV programme, The God Delusion. Here we comment on the Oxford professor's treatment of aspects of Catholicism and American Evangelicalism.

On this page: LourdesThe AssumptionMegachurch as NuremburgThe Social Dimension of ReligionThe Eye as AccidentBeleaguered Freethinkers



Dawkins starts his travels with a visit to Lourdes. At the end of the visit, he concludes,

the hard fact is, over the years, with their millions of pilgrims, there have been 66 supposed miracles

and adds that the cures were all from afflictions that may clear up naturally anyway: you don't get severed legs regenerating at Lourdes.

The Catholic priest from whom Dawkins has elicited the statistic also points out that millions of visitors to Lourdes have benefited spiritually. This is in line with what the two women pilgrims whom Dawkins has previously spoken to have said: that the pilgrimage was an act of faith and that the benefit was spiritual.


Now, not that it really matters, Dawkins was correct that the 66 miracles prove nothing. But he was failing to get to grips with the important statistic: millions of people have made the pilgrimage over the last 150 or whatever number of years. The real significance for the faithful of the miracle cures is this, they point to Lourdes as a sacred place, somewhere special to go in order to have your faith reaffirmed: by asserting it in the company of thousands of other people from all over the world doing likewise. In Lourdes, the millions of pilgrims were the hard fact Dawkins needed to home in on, not the 66 miracles.

A single blow

Why Dawkins should ignore the millions and focus on the 66 is explicable in various ways. For one thing, there is a tradition within atheism of debunking alleged supernatural phenomena: one thinks for example of James Randi on the paranormal or Professor Michael Persinger on the electro-magnetic basis of religious experiences. For another thing, There is the consideration that reducing religion to a matter of statistics seems to be part of the ethos of secularism in Britain.

Again, we can recognise in Dawkins and in other militant freethinkers the urge to come up with some clincher that will demonstrate the falsehood of religious belief once and for all, some kind of polemical equivalent of a medical magic bullet for wiping out disease. Another analogy would be with the kind of critical scientific experiment that establishes a theory in a single blow, such as Eddington's 1919 eclipse observations confirming Einstein.

Protestant roots

But we also need to be aware that Dawkins's choice of Lourdes to debunk has its roots in old-time Protestant anti-papism, that a lot of what atheists like Dawkins criticise in religion generally was originally what Victorian and earlier Protestant polemecists criticised in Catholicism. When Dawkins comments on Lourdes, he recycles what was originally Protestant disapproval of Catholic religious theatre, blind faith and so on.    [Back to Summary]

The Assumption

Dawkins follows up his Lourdes visit with an account of the history of the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Our Lady. Now clearly, your present writer doesn't believe in this doctrine any more than in a divine explanation for cures at Lourdes, but it was nevertheless inaccurate for Dawkins to represent the doctrine as the product of private thoughts from inside the head of a religious authoritarian, Pope Puis XII, and imposed on the Catholic Church in the year 1950.

In fact, Dawkins contradicts himself in this matter. First he represents the doctrine as the product of a widespread tradition, then as the product of a single authority figure.

First Dawkins tells us that the belief was initially made up like any tale 600 years after Christ, then gradually took hold as a tradition, till in 1950 it became official truth. There can be no real quarrel with that account. The language is biased, but the essentials seem fine: a tradition gradually emerged over many hundreds of years that was eventually formally recognised as part of the Church's official teaching.

But suddenly, from one sentence to the next, Dawkins switches to something totally different:

By 1950, the tradition was so strongly established that it became official truth. It became authority. The Vatican decreed that Roman Catholics must now believe …

Dawkins now proceeds to explain that the Pope had made it all up himself. Ridiculously, he claims that, if asked, Pius XII would have said that

it had been revealed to him by God.

He comments that the Pontiff had

shut himself away and just thought about it.

Obviously, the Pope would have said no such thing and it didn't happen that way.

It was not a case of Roman Catholics must now believe, but of putting the official stamp of approval on what Catholics in general already believed. [1] We must suppose the idea arose and prospered because it fulfilled some kind of need within Catholicism: maybe to give an enhanced role to some kind of female principle or perhaps as a counterweight to some notion of female impurity.

What is more, we should view the belief in the light of other Christian beliefs, particularly those concerning the ascent to heaven of all of the faithful at the end of the world: in the Assumption, Mary seems merely to be getting a head start. Again, is the Assumption as a belief all that far removed from that Protestant idea they call the Rapture.

As with miracle cures at Lourdes, there is little to be learned from taking belief in the Assumption out of context and demonstrating that it is a fiction. That's like looking at a spark plug and expecting to understand why people buy cars.

As with Lourdes, in Dawkins's debunking of the doctrine of the Assumption we can detect the freethinker urge to come up with a critical argument, to pull out that single brick and bring tumbling down the whole edifice of religion. Likewise, we have to see him merely repeating time-honoured Protestant views on aspects of Catholicism.

There's a particular clue to Dawkins's residual Protestantism when he mentions that the doctrine of the Assumption is non-Biblical. That matters a lot to Protestants, who in the Reformation replaced the doctrinal authority of Church tradition and of the papacy in particular with that of the Bible. But it is impossible to see any relevance in it for atheists, who surely set no more store by the authority of the Bible than they do by that of the tradition of the Catholic Church and the pope.    [Back to Summary]


This site does not find its representation of Dawkins as a Godless Protestant to be underminded by his highly critical attitude to today's American Protestant fundamentalism, when he visits an evangelical megachurch in Colorado Springs. You feel that Dawkins's approach is fuelled not only by his opposition to creationism but also by some sense of betrayal: that old-fashioned Protestant values are being abandoned in c21st evangelicalism American style.

Megachurch as Nuremburg

At the start of the Colorado Springs interview as televised, Dawkins points to the great expense involved in building the huge megachurch which he is visiting. Then, incredibly, he suggests to the pastor, Ted Haggard, to his face, that the latter is some kind of nazi. For, referring to the Pastor addressing his huge congregation, he remarks outrageously:

I was almost reminded, if you'll forgive me, of the Nuremburg rallies, I mean such incredibly … Dr Goebbels would have been proud.

Now let's be clear, there's no almost about it. The quantum difference between nazism and the rest of us means that in any attentuated comparison the attenuation is inoperative. You can't be almost reminded of anything to do with nazism, either you are reminded or you're not.

Obviously, militant atheists like Dawkins can't be happy at the ascendency of fundamentalist religion in the USA today. But why did he react so strongly at the sight of thousands of Protestants in a colossal church in Colorado Springs, when the thousands of Catholics in Lourdes didn't seem to bother him all that much?

Part of the explanation must be that Dawkins was viewing this new development in US Protestantism from the perspective of an earlier style of Protestantism, that there was some sense of disgust that the Oxford professor's expectations of what Protestantism should be all about are not being met.

Essential Protestantism has always meant minimal religion: making sure that as little as possible comes between the individual believer and God as known through the Bible. Such an approach is epitomised architecturally in those minimal churches you see in pictures of old-time America, the traditional little white clapboard ones out on the prairie. The Colorado Springs megachurch for a congregation of 12,000 seems to fly in the face of that minimalist Protestantism.    [Back to Summary]

The social dimension of religion

At Lourdes, Dawkins had referred to the

tremendous feeling of group solidarity

the pilgrims must experience. He thought it must reinforce their blind faith. We may suppose that he sees the Colorado Springs megachurch in the same sort of light.

Essential Protestantism has been about the psychological dimension, interiority, with the social dimension of religion found in Catholicism for the most part effectively rejected as superstition. But megachurch Protestantism seems to be about religion as social experience: not only do is there the emotion inevitably generated at church services for thousands, there are also the 1300 programmes of community activities. Dawkins seems to resent all that!

The other part of the explanation for the references to Nuremburg and Goebbels starts with the consideration that Catholics don't challenge the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection: that's why Dawkins can label the Lourdes pilgrims a benign herd. For him, the socially reinforced blind faith being generated in the evangelical megachurch is far worse because it does challenge Darwinism: hence the intemperate comparison with nazism.

Now as far as this site is concerned, Dawkins's brand of evolutionism, something he pursues with a religious fervour rather than with a scientific enthusiasm, is actually part of his Protestant atheism. It seems as though he has simply replaced the God and the Bible with Science and the literature of Darwinism. This argument will be developed on a later page.    [Back to Summary]

The eye as accident

Prior to the Colorado Springs segment of the programme, Dawkins has argued in his commentary in favour of evolution and against creationism, using his Mount Improbable analogy. The matter comes up again in the televised exchanges between himself and Pastor Haggard, most notably regarding the role of accident.

When, in an exchange on scientific method, Haggard refers to the eye as the product of accident, and the ear as well, Dawkins homes in, asking his interviewee to confirm what he's said and concluding:

You obviously know nothing about the subject of evolution.

It is impossible to see what Dawkins has to gain by this sort of remark in terms of his stated aim of finding out in Colorado Springs why in general fundamentalism is on the up in the USA and why in particular it is attacking science. Rather we have to understand the remark in the same light as the debunking of the 66 miracles at Lourdes or the Assumption doctrine. Dawkins really seems to believe that he can use debating QEDs as magic bullets with which to cure the world of religion.

Indeed, the imaginary visitor from Mars might conclude that there is not too much to choose between on the one hand Catholic belief in miracle cures or Protestant creationist belief in the eye as an accident (effectively as a miracle) and on the other militant atheist belief in killer arguments that are going to miraculously eradicate religion.    [Back to Summary]

Beleaguered freethinkers

In the programme, Dawkins stays on in Colorado Springs in order to gather comments from a handful of beleaguered freethinkers. This is further confirmation that he was not really in the USA to find out about the upsurge of fundamentalist religion, but rather to challenge it. For if he had been genuinely interested in why Americans are returning to religion, it's members of Haggard's congregation Dawkins would have been talking to, not freethinkers.

Dawkins is surely correct that local freethinkers are under attack for supporting Darwinism, that they are being subjected to a sort of McCarthyism. But that's an effect of the rise of fundamentalism, whereas the TV programme purports to be about its causes. The glaringly obvious first step in finding out the why of fundamentalism would have been to actually ask people, particularly those involved.

Yet, as far as we are aware from the material screened, Dawkins doesn't even ask Pastor Haggard to give his own account for the success of his ministry or why he is hostile to Darwinism. All we see is Dawkins making freethinker debating points of one kind or another at the American evangelical's expense.

That's not good enough for this site: here it seems preferable to try to understand rather than simply to dismiss out of hand.    [Back to Summary]


1 Dawkins on the Assumption

At the time of writing, when you look for doctrine of the Assumption on Google UK, the first entry you find is for a BBC info page. This tells you that in 1946 Puis XII consulted all Catholic bishops to ask if they, their priests and their people thought the doctrine should be made official and that 99% agreed. See The BBC on the doctrine of the Assumption.

Of course, it could be argued that this percentage did not really represent a significant consensus, that in a hierarchical situation such a result was only to be expected: like an election result in a dictatorship. But even so, the fact that there was a consultation process at all undermines Dawkins's version of events in his remark:

Now if you had asked Pope Pius XII how he knew it was truth, he would have said you had to take his word for it, because it had been revealed to him by God.

That's not at all what the Pope would have said. Instead, he would undoubtedly have indicated in some way that the Church was central to his decision making process: he would have said something to the effect that he felt he was expressing the will of God, as revealed to the Church.

Readily Available Information

In fact, it is quite clear that the 1950 proclamation of the doctrine of the Assumption was definitely not a personal initiative of Puis XII. Thus Marina Warner: Alone of All Her Sex - The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary [1976] has a whole chapter devoted to documenting the doctrine and reflecting on it. Though she does not mention the 1946 papal survey, Warner does tell us concerning the doctrine that:

Between 1849 and 1940, 3,387 cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, and bishops petitioned for its proclamation, and dozens of international Marian congresses were held to debate the question. All came out in favour. [p 92 of the 1978 Quarto paperback edition]

Now Puis XII was not elected Pope till 1939.

We must ask how, given that information on the Church's consensus is readily available, Dawkins could come up with his silly story that Pope Puis XII would have claimed that the doctrine of the Assumption

had been revealed to him by God.

The answer has be that rather than checking on the facts our Protestant atheist Professor relied on his thoroughly Protestant understanding of how religion works.

Dawkins has jumped to the conclusion that Puis XII would have claimed to have experienced a personal revelation from God, because in the Protestant understanding that's how God reveals Himself: in person to person encounters with particular individuals. He did so to the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, as in the case of Moses on Mount Sinai, and has continued to work that sort of way ever since.

(For more on Protestant understandings, see elsewhere on this site.)

Personal Religion, Social Religion

Dawkins fails to appreciate the fundamental difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. Protestantism is essentially about personal religion, about individuals being in a personal relationship with God, whereas Catholicism has essentially been about social religion, about the Church being in a relationship with God and individual believers being part of the Church.

In Catholicism, God has not revealed Himself doctrinally by speaking to lone individuals on discrete occasions, but by speaking to the Church over time, over the whole Christian era. Thus, when popes have made any given doctrine official, they have claimed to be passing on not something that God told them personally one day, but something that the Church has gradually formulated over the centuries of its collective engagement with God.

Note that the TV programme was not the first time Dawkins had discussed the doctrine of the Assumption. He had spent a page or more on it in Good and Bad Reasons for Believing, a piece first published in J.Brockman and K.Matson (eds): How Things Are [1995] and reprinted in R.Dawkins: A Devil's Chaplain [2003]. This earlier account likewise totally ignores any notion of the Pope expressing a consensus when he proclaims doctrines ex cathedra.

So clearly, the silly story had been in Dawkins's polemical arsenal for at least 10 years: 10 years in which he could have checked the facts, 10 years in which he could subjected his own understanding to the sort of critical scrutiny he urges on religious believers with regard to their understandings.  [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2006

The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins
The Root of All Evil: 2 TV programmes
The God Delusion SummaryComment 1Comment 2
The Virus of Faith SummaryHistoricism 1Historicism 2Contradictions